Freethought NOW!

Women’s rights pioneer saw religion as a millstone

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A picture of Elizabeth Cady Stanton with the article title underneath it

Editor’s note: Although FFRF columnist James Haught died, sadly, on July 23 at age 91, we are lucky to still have a bunch of pieces Jim gave us to use — some fresh and others previously published — that we will be sending out till we exhaust this treasure trove. This profile is drawn from Haught’s 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People with the Courage to Doubt (Prometheus Books, 1996).

The struggle for women’s rights in America was launched largely by one brilliant, determined activist who waged the battle for a half-century.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (whose death anniversary falls this week) was born in Johnstown, N.Y., and raised in a climate of religious severity. “I can truly say that all the cares and anxieties, the trials and disappointments of my whole life, are light, when balanced with my sufferings in childhood and youth from the theological dogmas which I sincerely believed, and the gloom connected with everything associated with the name of religion,” she stated later in life.

She was gifted, but few schools of the early 1800s admitted females. So, Stanton’s father, a judge, arranged for her to attend male-only Johnstown Academy, where she won second prize in Greek. Since no degree-granting colleges were then open to women, she attended the pioneering Emma Willard academy in Troy, N.Y., for young women. Studying law with her father, Stanton was outraged by the many laws denying women the right to own property or control their lives. Her study could not lead to a career because women were forbidden to practice law.

Denied access to other fields, Stanton became active in the abolition and temperance movements. She married an abolitionist lawyer in 1840 and accompanied him to London to a world conference against slavery. Women delegates were refused recognition, however: Renowned clergymen contended that the will of God forbade their participation. But the convention allowed the two American women attending, Stanton and Lucretia Mott, to sit behind a curtain and hear the proceedings, without speaking. “Through theological superstitions, woman finds her most grievous bondage,” she aptly said. This experience brought them together in a determination to fight for equality for women.

Back in America, Stanton and Mott called an 1848 conference that marked the start of the modern women’s movement. Stanton sought the right to vote, as the key to other rights. Mott felt this demand was too drastic, but Frederick Douglass exhorted both delegates to pass a suffrage resolution.

Three years later, Stanton met Susan B. Anthony, a Unitarian social activist, and they became a team crusading tirelessly for women’s rights through the last half of the 19th century. They were joined by fellow Unitarians Lucy Stone and Ralph Waldo Emerson and other reformers. The advocates met scorn, ridicule, threats and even violence, but never ceased their speeches, writings, meetings and court challenges.

As she struggled for equal rights, Stanton often scoffed at supernaturalism and called religion a millstone around the necks of women.

“The bible and church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of women’s emancipation,” she remarked.

Stanton died 18 years before America finally ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, allowing women to vote.

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